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Berlioz: Benvenuto Cellini at Salzburg Festival 2007

Naxos DVD 2.110271

This production of an always challenging opera, with robots and Cellini's arrival by helicopter etc etc, evoked predictably "mixed reviews" from Salzburg (e.g. Opernflop in Salzburg (Klassik Com).

The DVD may fare better because it helps to focus viewing amongst the maelstrom of activity on stage [A production almost tailor-made for the DVD - Mostly Opera]. Also, the sound is possibly better balanced than as experienced by some opera goers at the theatre (e.g. Valery Gergiev took too literally Berlioz's frequent indications of fortissimo).

Shocked at first by the attendant robots who caringly look after Teresa (the marvellous Maija Kovalsvska [pictured thrice], for us the singing star of the show*) we soon adjusted to Philipp Stölz's provocative and blasphemous production which, however, remains remarkably faithful to the de Wailly/Barbier text, one which if taken straight nowadays would not work in the opera house. Some of the characterisation (e.g. The Pope's) is deliberately down-played ironically and the cast will have needed to put faith in the director's eccentric up-to-date vision.

But the music retains its dominance, lots of wonderful characteristic Berlioz which is not often to be heard (let alone seen in the opera house) - some of it recycled as his Overture Roman Carnival, based on material from two scenes of Benvenuto Cellini. (q.v. "Berlioz’s opera divides opinion : the Overture, though is well regarded because it’s big and lush" [AO].

Another context in which to think of this production is Salzburg's The Damnation of Faust from 1999 by Berlioz (100 003) from the Salzburg Festival 1999, then "about the most sensational musical/visual experience I have ever had from a TV screen".

There are some half dozen CDs** but no other DVD of Benvenuto Cellini available. The Salzburg production of Benvenuto Cellini (and this DVD) suffered from a spate of cancellations at Salzburg that year, since both Neil Shicoff, cast for the title role, and Vesselina Kasarova, who should have sung the role of Ascanio, cancelled at short notice. As Cellini, Shicoff's understudy Burkhard Fritz manfully took over the demanding eponymous role for whole run.

Musical Pointers has not happened to have a previous opportunity to review Benvenuto Cellini in any form, though I do have a positive, if vague, memory of it in London's Royal Opera House, 1966. So this take should not be dismissed out of hand by traditionalists.

Do not pass it by.

Peter Grahame Woolf

* Révélation en Teresa de la soprano lettone Maija Kovalevska, lauréate du concours Operalia 2006, voix et physique aptes à en faire une nouvelle Netrebko: LA LIBRE.BE.

** Serena Fenwick recommends Colin Davis’s 1969 ROH recording with Nicolai Gedda, Christiane Eda-Pierre, Jules Bastin